Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The compass

How did I ever end up here?

My trip to Europe in many ways was significantly easier than Asia, at least in terms of my expectations. We always stayed along a very well known path, saw very well known cities, and spoke very well known (for us at least) languages. I had grown up seeing pictures of white stucco walls of Greece, and romantic street light lit movies in Paris… I could easily point to each city on a map. Every new city I experienced a feeling of “I can’t believe I’m actually here! A place that I’ve seen so many times but am actually experiencing for real…” A bit like seeing a movie star.

My time in Asia, however, has been considerably more unexpected... More like meeting some strange individual that you’ve heard bits and pieces about, but need to spend time with to really to get to know.

One feeling I find myself repeatedly experiencing is wondering how I even got myself in certain situations. I know how I physically made it, but it’s as if my consciousness needs time to catch up with me… as if there is such a high level of new stimuli which I have no frame of reference for that I need to pause, take it all in and realize that this is truly happening to me. Getting to “The Sanctuary” in Koh Phangan was definitely one of those situations.

To begin with, I’ve realized that every time I leave for a new location on my own I become quite apprehensive. A few people have, amiably, told me that I must be brave to manage such a trip by myself (well at least bits of it on and off), but I can't ignore the fear of the unknown before I strike out on my own. After spending almost a week with some friends in Koh Samui and Haad Rin, I did my best to let this anxiety slide off my shoulders and I headed towards the pier for The Sanctuary.

The Sanctuary, a yoga retreat on the same island as Haad Rin (better known for its infamous full moon parties), is quite remote, and most easily accessible by boat. Unfortunately, however, the waters were too choppy and I was informed I need to take an off road taxi. What they neglected to tell me, when I asked a few hours prior, is that these “taxis” have set times.

Once I made it to the pier, the taxi drivers told me one truck had just left, and I would need to wait until more other travelers show up. Pardon? I just need to wait some unspecified amount of time until a few more yogis heading in the same direction simply “show up”? The closest estimation they gave me is "maybe in two hours", at 7:30pm, when the last boat from Koh Samui comes in. At this point I was already exhausted after trying to sleep in (what I considered) quite filthy, raucous and humid bungalows on the beach in Haad Rin and was feeling entirely disgusting… Combine that with my fear of the unfamiliar and my western expectations of travel times (quite a high demand on a tropical island I am aware) and I nearly gave up on the whole idea. Luckily they decided my business alone was worthy of a trip over, and shortly I climbed into one of the pick-up truck “shuttles” that would take me to Haad Tien.

With my backpack bouncing along in the back, we pushed our way through a trail in the Thai jungle. Now this was an adventure, at least by my standards! The craziness of the bumps and hills, and the fact that I was going to the middle of nowhere on a little island, in a pick-up truck, with some random Thai driver, alone, somehow brought a smile to my face. Every second airborne (yes, that kind of ride) brightened my mood. How did I even get here? Where am I? How am I actually managing this?

Forty five minutes later, I ended up at the Sanctuary. 
The reception area


I kicked off my flip flops at the reception (the inside, if you can qualify it as such as it’s open air, requires bare feet, which I love) and landed myself a dorm for 200 baht a night,roughly $6.50 cad. 

My dorm room
and the view

The main area is built almost entirely of bamboo and being on the beach, you can feel the breeze as you sip on coconut water in a hammock (love fulfilling those stereotypes) or eat some of their (naturally) vegetarian food. Though the food and classes are expensive by Thai standards, it’s still reasonable enough for a backpacker. Their array of choices from a little Japanese style futon on the ground in the dorms to upscale air conditioned bungalows cater to variety of people.

And is it ever a variety of people! My first impression of the place was like a Thai version of the Naam crossed with Wreck Beach. I suppose I expected a bunch of health conscious granola types, which they are, but I didn’t quite realize the level of eccentricity I would find here. Everyone here seem to own only sarongs, tie-dye, fisherman pants and feathers… Many clearly enjoy psychedelics, and greet one another with hands in prayer saying “Namaste”.  Of all the places I choose for my week alone in Thailand, I end up here. Clearly I have more of my father’s bend toward unconventionality in me than I realize!

Most notable of the individuals I’ve met have been a very spiritual Norwegian yoga instructor, S, and a Torontonian named River. Usually I don’t include names in my blog, but when you change your name to something like that... Well I couldn't help but to use it to illustrate the kind of people I’m meeting here. My first night the two of them had such surreal conversation that my fatigue seemed to melt away.

Needless to say, River was quite adamant that I try something to “connect with the universe” and that I could later use that experience as a reference point, or something along those lines… Not really a choice for me personally, but interesting to hear his point of view! S, who, having put sunscreen on my back two days in a row, declared my skin felt better today. Had I practiced yoga? My energy was different. Yogis I tell you.

I met another Canadian, J, here, who had just spent the last three years teaching English in Korea. Definitely a bit more Commercial Drive than Kits (loving my Vancouver references in this post), but she had danced her whole life too, so we got along well. After chatting for a while, she was very sweet and gave me her compass as she was heading home in the next few days. What a useful tool! I never thought of it. If ever I’m lost in a city (always), in a taxi that may or may not be heading in the right direction (likely), or in the middle of some random island, I can always have a little bit of direction. I feel much more prepared to deal with those “how did I ever end up here and where the am I??” moments.

Check out the Sanctuary's website :

Monday, December 12, 2011

My trek to China.

I've made it to China. Xingyi, Guizhou, China to be exact, in the far south of the country. If Japan was a whole other culture, China feels like a whole other planet.

As my friends would say "ce n'était pas évident arriver ici!" it was a trek! I left Sasebo at 8am, walked with my lovely backpack for 20 mins, hoped a bus, rushed hoping ever so much to make my shuttle to the airport on time. An hour later, I'm at the Nagasaki airport. Despite a great amount of confusion (I've learned to always allow time for the language barrier), I finally make it aboard the plane.

Then I arrive in Shanghai.

Words cannot express my utter disbelief at the place. The sheer vastness, chaos and blank was mind boggling, to say the least. I somehow realized I needed to change airports (yes airports, not terminals) so I nervously mounted a shuttle they pointed and shouted would be the one to get me to Honqien.

This ride astounded me. We maneuvered over and under, around and through winding highways... Five lanes one way. Cars stopping in the middle of two lanes. Honks everywhere. People pilling on motorcycles without helmets, pushing their way through the traffic. Highways one on top of the other. Signs showing the level of upcoming traffic with green, orange or red lanes. I wasn't quite sure if the haze I was seeing was cloud or pure pollution.

A stunned hour later, I somehow make it to to another side of the city. There is no way I'll do any sight seeing at this point, as it's already 4:30pm and my flight leaves at 6. Even flying above the city was mind blowing. The lights, the skyscrapers crowd the scene for miles and miles...

Finally, I arrive in Kunming at 9:30pm (10:30 Japan time) and follow the crowd correctly to reach me to the baggage claim. Looking with anticipation through a sea of black hair (surely it will be easy to spot the only white guy in the place?) I see my friend D, his eyes light up and holds a sign with my nickname on it.

I have arrived!

Only not exactly. My flight goes to Kunming, but I've still got to make it to Xingyi. Let travel in China begin...

My friends are so brave to move here.

Monday, December 05, 2011

An uneasy conscience.

A couple of days ago, my friend D and I watched Before Sunrise (which I highly recommend, by the way, especially for those with a love of traveling) and the main character, Jesse, mentions that these great ideas always seem to come to him when he's on a train. I can absolutely relate. The time I spend on long journeys, trains especially, tend to lull me into a state of thought and reflection.

This was the case last week, on yet another flight: this time from Nagasaki to Shanghai.

Travel and global warming

Taking off in a plane always triggers the same thought... As the plane takes on speed, lifts up and the city rushes by me, I can't help feeling guilty, that this is the worst possible thing I could do for the environment. All those months of doing my best to take reusable water bottles to yoga, travel mugs to work, tote bags to the grocery store all disappear in one fell swoop when I make the decision to step on a plane. Ironic in a way really, because my desire to travel stems from wanting to see the world and appreciate its diversity, but in doing so, I'm the one ruining it, and am entirely conscious of my actions and of their consequences. Carbon offsets thankfully do take the edge off the guilt, at least in part, but the guilt still lingers.

English as the "universal" language.

My native English presents a dichotomy for me when I travel: on one hand, I feel so fortunate to have grown up speaking English, as it so happens to be the language most widely spoken and understood. If you don't speak the country's language, English is usually your next best bet. While in Europe last year, I was struck by the number of people and places that spoke English. Although I feel that it's useful to have a language so widely understood, at least the basics, and I agree it is beneficial to have a common language, a common ground to stand on, I can't help thinking it's sad in a way... That the widespread use of it and desire to learn it could come at the expense of other cultures and diversity. As my friend A mentioned to me, "who am I to come to a country and teach them English, to think that my language is worth learning over another?"

In Japan for example, so many of the signs, from train stops to coffee shops, had English names, or written under the Japanese at the very least. And on the idea of coffee shops, Starbucks was everywhere. In the train stations, in the department stores, in the shopping districts... Why should a company from an English speaking nation exist all over the world?
My adorable friend J sipping on Starbucks in Kyoto

That being said... I am not always as adventurous a traveler as I would like to be and the combination of caffeine, wifi and North American culture has often been my saving grace! 

How lucky I am to be born Canadian.

My younger brother, somehow much braver than I, has already been to Thailand and Malaysia, by himself, at the age of nineteen. I could never have done this. He told me that while getting to South East Asia was outrageously expensive, once you arrive the cost of living is incredibly cheap. Though I'm not in Thailand yet, Xingyi, China fits that description perfectly. Though this is clearly to my advantage, it makes you realize how unfair life truly is. I read that the economy Guizhou, the province Xingyi is located in, is comparable to the poorest of Central American countries.

Overlooking a typical porch in Xingyi
Working on temple in Xingyi

If I have a hard time saving money to make it to China, what hope does a Chinese girl of my age from Guizhou have of saving enough money not only to get to Canada, but of affording the necessities upon arrival? I just so happened to be born in a country with a good economy. That in itself is incredibly lucky.

All this is not to say that I feel nothing but guilt about my lot in life and about my trip. I just think it's good to pause and truly appreciate how fortunate I've been.

Also, on a side note, now that I'm traveling, I'm thankfully much more interested in planning each next step of my trip. My disinterest in it was starting to worry me for a bit... Like the saying "the more you learn, the less you know", the more I travel, the more I realize how small I am in the great scheme of things and how much there truly is to see. As much as I'm visiting four countries in two months, I'm only seeing such a small small part of each. I understand how people can spend a lifetime traveling.

A life well spent.

A few years ago,in my first semester of university, a girl I was chatting with told me: "I spend money on experiences, not possessions".

Years later, this notion has stuck with me.  It's a lifestyle that I greatly admire, but hardly embody in my own life. I love to shop (yet another hobby of mine that counters my desire to protect the environment, travel of course being number one) and I dream of owning a home, renting a beautiful apartment, filling it with lovely furnishings and my sense of style... For some reason, when I should have been spending time planning my trip, I spent hours pouring over home decorating blogs and magazines.

I clearly, unfortunately, buy into consumerism (and yes, the pun there does not escape me) and have a desire for more "stuff". Nevertheless, I still think of those words and do try to cultivate this idea in my own life: it's my mantra for this trip. At times I've questioned how much money this is costing me (and trying with all my might not to think of what kind of couch or dining set a particular flight could buy me) but I try to remember that value I hope to acquire in my life, at least in some ways: it's all about the experience. I have been so lucky in my life to have the chance to do to travel, and I am really trying to live in the moment: a career, a house... These can all come later. When else will I be able to see elephants on the islands of Thailand, monkeys in the mountains of Japan, friends in the middle of rural China? Now that I'm here, I know it's certainly worth it. 

Monday, November 28, 2011

Throw all preconceived notions out the door

Culture shock in Kyoto

The term "culture shock" is hardly a new one for me, but having only traveled to places like Europe and Australia, I didn't have a full understanding of what it could mean. Japan would prove to be a different experience.

One day the friend I was visiting, J, and I were in busy but refined Kyoto searching hopelessly for the Nishiki Market. Neither of us are admittedly all that great with directions... I absolutely need a map and a mental picture of it in my head if I hope to find what I'm looking for. In grid based layout like North America, this serves me quite well. While a large part of Japan follows the same pattern, not all streets are named. Why? Why is that? How on earth does mail get delivered if your home doesn't have a street name??

In any case, we're tirelessly searching for this market, and finally we reach the particular street we're looking for- but a market is no where to been seen. We then realize there are two Karasumas: a street and an avenue. Jessie eyes her ever trusted Iphone and tells me that we need Karasuma street and blank street (yet another Japanese word I have trouble remembering), not Karasuma avenue. To which I of course say that this cannot be, avenues and streets cross, streets run parallel to one another.

Not the case. J replies that in Japan, you must "throw all your preconceived notions away". Now there is a challenge!

Sure enough, I look at the google map, and it shows two streets crossing. Ridiculous.

We eventually found the Nishiki Market, thankfully!

Veggies at Nishiki

This statement proved useful to me on a number of occasions. There is a whole new set of customs here, from what is considered polite (don't eat or blow your nose in public, but sniff as much as you want), to their complicated garbage and recycling rules: (combustibles, non-combustibles, sections for different paper... the list goes on and on) 

Garbage and recycling routines at my friend A's house
to even their version of a balanced diet:

Food guide on white bread in Japan. A) there is hardly any whole wheat bread here B) bread makes the top of recommended servings, 6-7, while fruit is at the bottom!
I never realized that Canada's food guide could be view completely different in another country, that they could have another opinion to what a balanced diet would be!

And their food... I doubt I could ever live here and grow accustomed to the food. My friend J took me to a lovely restaurant in Kyoto called Giro Giro that served set 10 course meals.

One out of the ten courses: salmon and oysters I believe

First courses beautifully presented in the fall Kyoto colours

My favourite, dessert! Hard to know what each piece was...

I now have a new understanding of culture shock. Forget all pieces of wisdom, common courtesy and common sense acquired up until now as adult and start fresh. What is true in Canada cannot always be true in another country, even concepts taken for granted like avenue and street directions.

With this new piece of insight, there's a new part of myself I've learned on this trip. I'm not an "all or nothing" kind of girl, and throwing myself into their culture and fully embracing it all in one go is not my style. To stop myself from feeling overwhelmed, I need to take it slow and keep part of my own culture, food especially, while learning about new one. Try some new specialties, but eat some others that are familiar. Keeping my balance has never rang truer.   

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Asia Bound

One of my main goals in life is to open my mind, to see outside my bubble. I'd like to develop  greater understanding and empathy towards people and cultures who differ from me. So naturally, I have a great urge to travel. 

I am not, however, a natural traveler. I stress a great deal before (and admittedly during) a long trip. My anxiety soars when booking flights. I am hardly an adventurous soul (I have an irrational fear of fish, for example)... I dread planning, yet prefer to have the majority outlined and organized... Which doesn't bode well with a "go with the flow" travel attitude. For me, travel is a goal, something I feel the need to do to feel "right" in my own skin, despite a number of challenges my own character creates for me.

A good friend of my family, G, does not seem to have such issues. With worldwide mementos adorning her walls, outrageous get togethers surrounded by international friends, she comes by it with ease. She once gave me a valuable piece of advice: travel where you know someone.

As a language lover who has been learning Spanish (albeit on and off) for quite some time, I was quite determined to have my next trip in South America. But somehow, a number of friends ended up in Asia. And not just the parties of Thailand, but in "small"-town Japan and rural China. The more I spoke of my trip with friends, the more I discovered many others planned to visit South East Asia. Somehow it seemed set. Perhaps a little obscure, or different from my usual taste (I do not speak a word of Japanese, Mandarin, Thai...)  but here I am, in Asia. 

Japan, China, Thailand, Indonesia. Somehow this is sounding more challenging than Europe...

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

How powerful this mind can be.

Now that I’ve been practicing for some time, I find yoga to be a brilliant teacher. For someone who is very typical of the western mindset (meaning my thoughts are constantly a mile a minute… It is constantly a challenge to quiet them) exercising mindfulness honestly enlightens me. Yesterday’s practice offered me one of those moments.

Scorpion pose is a very challenging but gratifying posture. At first glance, it seems worthy of Cirque du Soleil: a pretzel-like pose achieved by balancing on your hands. 

An example of my oh-so-talented friend B mastering Scorpion on a gorgeous day this past summer.

However, your perception can make all the difference. As my instructor illustrated, it is basically dolphin pose (balancing on your forearms) with a back bend.  She also reminded us to “look up” (a step I somehow always missed). A simple piece of advice I know, but somehow it clicked. The way you internalize a concept mentally can largely affect your ability to execute it. I can perform both aspects individually, but with that little added awakening, I decided I could do this. 

And with that snap decision, I did. I had been working this pose for quite some time, and suddenly I jumped the hurdle. It made me realize just to what extent our minds play a role in our ability, and how much our own confidence and drive and make or break an accomplishment. Having spoken to a recent iron man athlete, he admitted that after a time, completing such a feat is all in your mind. The training is intense, but at the end of the day, it all comes down to focusing your mind to do it.

It’s simple, but deeply reassuring, not to mention powerful, once I fully internalized it. For someone as motivated and ambitious as I can be (not always a good quality I find), this was huge. You control what you choose to accomplish. Cliché perhaps, but definitely inspiring.

Monday, November 14, 2011

"First World Problem"

A little while ago my friend E posted on facebook “Can’t get the temporary pirate tattoos from last night off... fml.”

To which our mutual friend responded “First World Problem.”

I found this little quote quite humorous, but it has also made me reflect on my everyday challenges, notably my current quest to find my path in life. As children, we are constantly told “you can do anything you want”, which is wonderful, but now that’s it’s truly an option… Well it’s a tad daunting, to say the least. I can live where I want, date and marry who I want, do I want, spend my time the way I want… But what on earth do I want?

What a problem.

There are of course the lucky few who have always known themselves, always known what they hoped to do.  A friend of mine, for example, needed to write what he wanted to be when he grew up in his fifth grade yearbook. Amidst the usual responses of astronaut, inventor, professional football player, he answered “engineer”. And now, at 25 years of age, he’s living the dream: an engineer. Oh, to have such clarity (not to mention remotely know that such a career exists at the age of ten). 

However, for the many others I’ve read about and talked to, paths are not always so clear; it’s in fact fairly common. So I’ve decided not to be so hard on myself. Many people go through this, but time (so they tell me) can be a great help.

At the same time, thinking of my friend’s little joke, she reminds me not to take such a “dilemma” so seriously. Appreciate all that I do have, and enjoy this time in my life.

About This Blog

Growing up, I always had a clear picture of where I was supposed to be. Dancing, diploma, degree… All was pretty much laid out for me including the standard “post-graduation Europe trip”. The next step never required all that much reflection.

But when I flew home from Paris and landed at my mother’s doorstep in dreary rain-sodden November in suburban Vancouver, penniless, jobless and goal-less, my next move wasn’t so cut and dry. 

I was forced to ponder the question so loved among children, but so hated among recent graduates:
“What do you want to do when you grow up?”
(Really. I somehow landed an interview in a commercial real estate firm on the 10th floor of a shiny high rise downtown and the woman had the audacity to ask me that in a highly sarcastic tone. As much as I found the comment insulting, it did point to something: I clearly had no idea what my future goals looked like and would hardly be considered an asset in their company as a result).

Or better yet, “An arts degree eh? So what are you going to do with that?”
I’ve thankfully passed what seems to be the lowest of this stage, but the more I talk with friends, the more I realize that many people pass through this awkward phase of transition. 

This blog captures my journey to discover what’s right for me, what I need, what makes me happy, what enlightens me, and hopefully pass on a few things I wish I had known a little earlier now that I’m in my twenties, graduated, and starting my “real life”. Clarity and bliss. Clarity in developing mindfulness and open mindedness, and bliss in finding acceptance and knowing how to enjoy it.